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Although there are some parts of the world that are easily explored on foot or by public transportation, the American Southwest is best seen by car. Distances can be vast and scenery outside of town begs for the freedom to stop and take a photo or explore. From a base in Albuquerque, an incredible roadtrip lies just 100 miles to the west: visiting El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments.
Most of the time, hearing the word “roadtrip” brings images of summer vacations and packed minivans or even an RV. However, with 310 days of sunshine each year, there’s no reason to confine a roadtrip starting in Albuquerque to the summer months. I set out with my family for a winter getaway, easily accomplished as a daytrip. With high speed limits and open roads in New Mexico, you’ll easily be at El Morro within an hour and a half.
This national monument is an area both of scenic beauty and historic significance. This bluff (el morro means “the headland” in Spanish) had a reliable source of water, making it a great base for ancestral Puebloans and a good stopping point for both Spanish and American travelers. In winter, due to the altitude, patches of snow pop out against the otherwise dry landscape.
The National Park Service provides reading material for a self-guided visit of this free site. While reading the information aloud to my family, I was amazed at how winded I was from the elevation despite the fact the path was an easy stroll. My mother, more acclimated than me, had no problems and so I became the laughing point of the morning. It wouldn’t be a family roadtrip without a little teasing, would it?
Along the path, only a half mile long and perfect for the casual visitor, are ancient petroglyphs as well as inscriptions from Spanish conquistadors as early as 1605 and, more recently, American travelers passing through in the 1850s. Maybe in a few hundred years, today’s graffiti will also be preserved as part of a national monument.
For me, the real joy of El Morro was the longer Headlands Trail, encompassing the natural aspects of the area. The hike itself is still relatively short, but it does include a few steep sections, uneven terrain, and in winter, icy patches. Take your time and enjoy the views.
At the top of the trail, you’ll find the excavated Atsinna pueblo ruins. Originally occupied between 1275 to 1350, this was the home of roughly 1500 people.
From El Morro, your driving route continues back toward Albuquerque and it’s worth the detour to head to El Malpais National Monument. Like El Morro, the landscape is quite barren, though there are also peaks at prior volcanic activity in the area as well (in fact, with a permit, there are several lava tubes you can explore). Even though these badlands cover a lot of ground, you can see much of the area easily simply by following the main park road. Compared to my home on the east coast, the rocky plateaus form an entirely different type of backdrop, but one that is magnificent in its own way.
One of the park’s most famous landmarks is La Ventana Arch, which is only a few minutes walk from the nearest parking area. While there wasn’t a lot to explore in this particular section of El Malpais, it’s worth a stop.
By far, though, my favorite part of the park was at the Sandstone Bluffs, an area with panoramic vistas, jutting rock formations, and snowy mountain tops in the background.
Spending the day at El Malpais and El Morro National Monuments was a non-traditional way for my family to celebrate Christmas, but sometimes piling into a car to explore can be a great way to spend time together. We were wowed by the views along our drive and shared the experience together.
If, like me, you’re roadtripping through an area far from home, Enterprise can help you get a vehicle for your family’s needs so that you can get to places like these with your own set of wheels. Renting a car can often be a necessity while traveling, but even in some situations you may just want to upgrade to a larger vehicle so your whole family can tag along or drive a vehicle with better gas mileage if you’re covering a lot of ground.
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Read More About the Southwest:
- Driving the Enchanted Circle: A Photo Essay
- The Magnificent Bandalier National Monument
- Hiking at Chiricahua National Monument
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This post has been sponsored by Enterprise. As always, all opinions remain my own and if you’re ever in the Albuquerque area, I highly suggest a roadtrip through El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments!